• Saskia

How media manipulates our lives and shapes beliefs

Updated: Apr 23


A closer look at the dark side of the biggest social media platforms



As a media designer and as someone who creates content for digital consumption I feel the urge to encourage also to take a closer look at the dark side of the medal. There is not only the fun, entertaining, money making, informational and inspirational content. Much needed is also a look behind the scenes of what is going on.


The amount of people using social media is constantly growing. In 2020 3.8 million people were using social media and spent on average 144 min (2h 24min) on social media per day. (If you are interested in more details you can check out some statistics here.)


The competition for our highest good - our attention - is real. The aim of platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, Facebook ect. is to make you stay as much time as possible on their channel. It is their business model that runs around this goal. Ever wondered why they show you a list of people you might know and might want to add on the screen just after you added a contact on LinkedIn? Or why they don't show you the notification of all messages at once and show your new notifications just when you closed the app to go on with your business to draw you back in just checking who might have liked you picture?


The hackers they hire are not only code hackers, they hack human psychology. Sean Parker says that "Facebook was designed to exploit human vulnerability". The notifications, tagging, sharing and likes options are designed to activate a certain center in your brain. Social media has the same effect as the slot machine in Las Vegas. Gratification comes randomly and unpredictable. This type of gambling has the highest addiction factor.


During the last few years more and more insider people who were actively involved creating and programming the well-known and biggest social media applications take a step away from the companies and start speaking out about the negative impact the platforms have on millions of people. It affects adults and kids equally.


And I haven't even started talking about the topic of mass-manipulation and censorship that is currently going on on a large scale. As we currently all can witness happening during presidential election in the US. Where Twitter and Facebook posts "need to get thrid-party approval for fact checking" and comments on YouTube with certain keywords just "somehow disappear" after posting them without further notification. The freedom of speech is not guaranteed on those applications.


Tristan Harris outlines in his TED talk from April 2017 three things to steer things into a new direction. "A handful of people working at a handful of tech companies steer the thoughts of billions of people every day ... . From Facebook notifications to Snapstreaks to YouTube autoplays, they're all competing for one thing: your attention. Harris shares how these companies prey on our psychology for their own profit and calls for a design renaissance in which our tech instead encourages us to live out the timeline we want."


Tristan Harris in his Ted talk says that:

We have to make three radical changes to our technology and to our society


1. "We need to aknowledge that we are persuadable."That implies if we can be self-aware about the fact that our brains can be controlled with those tiny bits of information. And the understanding that we need to protect this.


2. "We need new models and accountability systems." That means the people who are controlling who gets to see what, need to be taken into accountability. That they only serve us content that aligns with our goals and not with their goals or that they are trying to manipulate us to trigger heavy emotions. With those emotions they create new programming in our brains. And change the way we think.


3. "A design renaissance." This means taking into consideration that they can control the narrative of a billion minds the way they want. And change the design to it so that it aligns instead with the individual's goals. Instead of pushing people into another direction than they initially wanted, they would be supported into the direction that they actually chose. That would actually empower people.



As Harris says so powerful at the end of his talk: "At the end of our lives, all that we have is our attention and our time."


I found the following sources that inspired me to write this article. They are insiders who experienced and help shaping the media the way it is today: